The Baram river system so dominates northern Sarawak that you could consider virtually all the interior here, excepting Limbang division, to be the Ulu Baram – practically every river, including the Melinau and Tutoh at Mulu, the Tinjar at Loagan Bunut and the Dapur and Kelapang at Bario, ends up flowing into the Baram. The Batang Baram itself, however, wends its way more or less constantly southeast from the town of Marudi, 80km from Miri, occasionally passing little confluence towns such as Long Lama and Long San, before approaching the border with Kalimantan. Here it swings east to peter out beyond Lio Matoh, 200km southeast of Miri. This Ulu Baram, due south of Mulu and southwest of the Kelabit Highlands, is definitely outback territory, rugged and lushly forested, though not spared the attention of the logging companies, whose roads penetrate even here. There are, of course, no specific sights; the reason you might venture here is to trek through virgin rainforest and stay in remote settlements as part of a homestay programme.
For some travellers, the Penan have a mystique beyond that of any of Sarawak’s many Orang Ulu groups, as a kind of poster child for the ongoing struggle for native peoples’ rights. That status is largely thanks to the high-profile campaign waged on their behalf by the Swiss activist Bruno Manser in the 1980s and 1990s. Manser lived with the Penan for many years and became a thorn in the side of the Sarawak government, successfully drawing the world’s attention to the destruction of their traditional forest habitat, though his PR successes had little impact on the juggernaut that is Sarawak’s logging industry. The Penan lost their champion when Manser disappeared in 2000, having trekked alone from Bario to meet the Penan in the jungle; he was never seen again, but the campaign he founded soldiers on (wbmf.ch).
Most of Sarawak’s twelve thousand Penan live in the upper reaches of the Baram and Belaga rivers. Their language is of the same family as Iban and Malay. Traditionally they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but these days the vast majority live in tiny villages – thanks not simply to habitat loss but also to the inescapable embrace of the outside world and the cash economy. Their old staple of sago has often been supplanted by rice, which the Penan grow like the Iban, in jungle clearings using shifting cultivation. Many Penan still struggle to make ends meet, both in towns where they may be in poorly paid work, and in their villages, where food is in reasonable supply but cash hard to come by. Another perennial problem is the lack of formal identity documents, without which many Penan cannot access services, education and jobs.
It’s possible to visit Penan settlements near Lio Matoh (see map), such as Long Kerong close to the Selungo River, and Long Lamai on the Balong, as part of a scheme calling itself Picnic with the Penan (picnicwiththepenan.org). The experience is similar to visiting tiny villages in the Kelabit Highlands, but much more cut off from the wider world. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come cheap. As this area has, to an extent, resisted the blandishments of the logging industry, logging roads and bridges are fewer and further between, and expensive boat charter is required to reach the villages. Furthermore, while MASwings flies to Long Banga near Lio Matoh, until (and if) the logging roads there are repaired, you will have to fly into Long Akah or Long Lellang, 50km away, and then head in by 4WD – another major expense. For more information on flights, see Arrival By plane. For these reasons a group of three is ideal, the most the longboats can carry with luggage.
When you finally arrive, however, the rewards can be considerable. There are ample chances to trek through dense, unspoiled jungle, using “trails” hacked out by your guide with a machete, spending the night perhaps in a simple hut of the type the Penan erect near their fields, or in a makeshift shelter that your guide might build using branches and leaves. From the Selungo River it’s also possible to climb Gunung Murud Kecil (“Little Murud”; 2112m), at the opposite end of the Tama Abu Range from its larger and more famous sibling. Bring similar gear to what you’d need in the Kelabit Highlands.
Village life can itself be a highlight. Local people can teach crafts such as basket-making, and then there’s the simple pleasure of bathing in the river with the villagers, or the spectacle of being at the simple village church on Sunday (many Penan belong to the evangelical Sidang Injil Borneo or SIB movement, which has churches throughout Sarawak); it’s great to witness hymns sung in Penan with the village youths showing off their self-taught skills on guitar, keyboards and drums. After the rice is planted (June) or harvested (February), you can even accompany the men as they hunt wild pig, aided by dogs, blowpipes and the odd antique rifle.
On the downside, the usual caveats about Malaysia homestays are especially valid here. One key point is that villagers take turns to put up guests, so quite how adept your hosts will be is a matter of luck. You may have your own room or space, or sleep alongside everyone and their screaming babies; meals can be meagre and there may be little to drink other than tepid, weak and sickly sweet coffee. Communication is another problem as few villagers speak good English.